Cached Nov. 9, 2005, from

ZHUANGZI (Chuang-tzu)

by Alan Fox
Department of Philosophy
University of Delaware


Background Info on Zhuangzi

Major Ideas
Zhuang Zhou
The Text
Philosophical Outlook
Philosophy of Language
Death As One More Natural Transformation
Conclusion - The Fully Realized Person
Further Reading 

Background Info on Zhuangzi:


The first seven chapters of the text, often called the Inner Chapters, are generally attributed to Zhuang Zhou (Chuang Chou), who, according to legend, lived in what is now known as Honan from approximately 370-286 BC. The rest of the text is often understood to contain fragments of material, some of which are sometimes attributed to the same author as the Inner Chapters, some of which are attributed to other authors, including representatives of the Yangzhu (Yang Chu) tradition. For the sake of convenience, this article will refer to the author and/or authors of the text simply as Zhuangzi.

Date of Composition:

Some scholars place this text as early as 350 BC., some as late as 250 BC. The crucial, though ultimately unanswered, question is which of the two primordial texts of philosophical Daoism (Taoism) came first-the Laozi (Lao-tzu) or the Zhuangzi. Most scholars, this author included, agree however that the Laozi predates the Zhuangzi, and that the author of the Inner Chapters was in fact familiar with the Laozi, in some form or another.

Type of Work:

Stories, allegories, essays, and fragments of earlier, perhaps even primordial mythological material.

Major Ideas:

The Zhuangzi is one of the two most famous primordial texts of what can be called "philosophical Daoism," although its influence is also felt in other traditions of Chinese thought. Its exact relationship to the other basic text, the Laozi, is unclear, though the two texts have a great deal in common. Some scholars have regarded the Zhuangzi as a commentary on the Laozi, and in some passages this might in fact be the case. But in general the Zhuangzi has its own philosophical agenda and is unique in many ways. For various reasons, including the Zhuangzi's apparent reference to passages from the Laozi and the apparent literary sophistication of the former relative to the latter, it seems very likely that the Laozi in some form or another predates the Zhuangzi.

In terms of literary sophistication, the Zhuangzi is in a class by itself. In some ways it reinvents the Chinese literary language. It makes reference to dozens of stories, myths, and legends common at the time of its authorship, many of which have been lost to us. But the text reworks these stories, eliciting new meanings and significance from them. These references are sometimes rather obscure, which makes reading the text extremely difficult.

The text has exerted an extremely powerful influence on subsequent forms of Chinese philosophical thought. This is particularly true of Chan Buddhism and later Daoist thought.

Zhuang Zhou

The only information regarding the ostensible author of the text is suspiciously legendary in nature, and must be regarded as at least somewhat unrelable. However, according to the historian Sima Qian (Ssu-ma Ch'ien), who lived several hundred years after the fact, Zhuang Zhou lived from approximately 370-301 BC. He is said to have come from the district of Meng, located in what is known today as Honan, China. He served there as a minor official, eventually resigning his position to return to private life. According to this account, he refused an offer to become Prime Minister by King Wei of Chu. (339-329 BC.).

Besides this account, there are many stories in the text which are of an ostensibly autobiographical nature. But the historicity of these stories must be regarded with some suspicion, partly because the work is primarily literary and philosophical and not historical in intent, and partly because much of the text is apparently the work of later authors who might easily have taken literary liberties with the facts.

The Text

The Zhuangzi was most often associated with, though subordinated to, the Laozi for several hundred years, until the end of the Han Dynasty (ca. 200 AD.). At that point, the breakdown of political and cultural unity may have resulted in an increased interest in Zhuangzi's rejection of conventional values, his justification of withdrawal from involvement in and fulfillment of civic responsibility, and his emphasis on seeking alternative, more natural attitudes and lifestyles which facilitate "finding the fit" with the world as a whole.

The text reached its present form, more or less, through the efforts of its most influential editor and commentator Guoxiang (Kuo-hsiang, ca. 300 AD.). It was likely Guoxiang who integrated materials from other sources, divided the book up into its present configuration of chapters, and assigned titles to the chapters. In fact, Guoxiang's influence is so strong that some scholars sometimes find it difficult to distinguish between the thought of Zhuangzi and the thought of Guoxiang.

Parts of the text spoof and satirize the more reputable and established philosophical traditions of its time, namely, the Confucians and the Mohists. Zhuangzi's basic attitude toward such philosophical disputation is that it is rather pointless and hairsplitting at best. It solves no problems conclusively, and merely leads to conflict and disagreement.

A passage from Chapter 2 indicates this attitude: "Suppose you and I have had an argument. If you have beaten me instead of my beating you, then are you necessarily right and am I necessarily wrong? If I have beaten you instead of your beating me, then am I necessarily right and are you necessarily wrong? Is one of us right and the other wrong? Are both of us right or are both of us wrong? If you and I don't know the answer, then other people are bound to be even more in the dark. Whom shall we get to decide what is right? Shall we get someone who agrees with you to decide? But if he already agrees with you, how can he decide fairly?…Obviously, then, neither you nor I nor anyone else can know the answer. Shall we wait for still another person?" (Basic Writings, p.43)

As we shall see, Zhuangzi's own approach can be described as perspectival-that is, the truth value of any claim is related to context or perspective, and must always be carefully qualified in order to have any validity at all. Zhuangzi suggests that words are like a fish trap-once the meaning is caught, one should forget the words, just as the trap is only useful for catching the fish, but can be put aside once the fish has been caught. Accordingly, the style of the text is very poetic, allegorical, evocative, and mythical. The text as it exists today, as edited by Guoxiang, consists of 33 chapters. The first seven chapters, called the inner chapters, are relatively consistent in style and attitude. Thus they are often considered by scholars to be the work of the author Zhuang Zhou himself. The next fifteen chapters, described as the outer chapters, and the last eleven chapters, described as the miscellaneous chapters, are often considered to be the work of later writers, including works representative of what is known as the Yangist tradition. These materials are perhaps interspersed with fragments of Zhuangzi's own writings. For the most part they seem to be consistent with the spirit of the inner chapters, yet are often not as artfully written, and at times even seem to have significantly different emphases and concerns.

The text seems pretty clearly to have been composed in layers, though scholars disagree on the exact number of layers involved. In any case the composition of the text seems to span at least three different phases or stages in the evolution of Daoist thought.

Furthermore, the text is extremely aphoristic, consisting of short stories, sound bites, and anecdotes. This style lends itself, as is also the case, for example, with Nietzsche in the West, to quotation out of context and the inevitable misunderstandings which subsequently result from such textual abuse. Thus we must be wary when attributing any single outlook to the text as a whole. Still, certain themes emerge, and we will discuss some of these below.

Philosophical Outlook

The Zhuangzi is often described as advocating relativism, and there are certainly relativistic elements to be found. But unlike more thoroughgoing forms of relativism, the text does privilege certain attitudes and behaviors, and thus cannot accurately be dismissed as purely relativistic. At least two different modes of experience are privileged in the text. In terms of mental state, in several places the text advocates a cognitive condition described as ming, or "clarity." Clarity in this case seems to involve the ability to discern subtle distinctions without necessarily evaluating experience in terms of a preferred alternative. Therefore, the text should not be thought of as advocating the obliteration of distinctions in an overwhelming experience of mystical oneness, which is how some commentators and scholars read the text.

In terms of behavior, the text privileges what is called "wu wei," or "effortless action." This kind of behavior seems to involve mnimizing conflict with what is inevitable or unavoidable in our experience, and reducing the friction and drag caused by obstinate commitment to a single preferred outcome.

Thus we might draw the conclusion that the ideal person, whom the text variously describes as "genuine" (zhenren), "fully realized" (zhiren), or "spiritual" (shenren), is one who is perfectly well-adjusted. That is to say, such a person is balanced and at ease in all kinds of situations, and is not thrown by novelty or unexpected circumstances. An image used by Zhuangzi to illustrate this kind of adjustment is what he calls the "hinge of Dao" (daoshu). In chapter 2, we find the following claim: "A state in which 'this' and 'that' no longer find their opposites is called the hinge of the Way. When the hinge is fitted in the socket, it can respond endlessly." (Basic Writings, p.35)

Although the presence of privileged modes of experience in the text prevents us from accurately describing it as thoroughly relativistic, still it does seem to be the case that, for Zhuangzi, all truth and valuation are necessarily contextually situated. This means, for example, that what is good for one individual might not be good for another, and the same goes for beauty, truth, usefulness, and so on. And just as this is the case for different individuals, it is also the case for a single individual at different times.

Thus, rather than obstinately clashing with the flux of the world by insisting on maintaining dogmatic and constant standards, one would be better off adjusting one's standards and attitudes in reponse to the needs of the current situation. One implication of this attitude of "least resistance" (wei wu wei) is that one's resources and overall well-being are best preserved through reducing the friction we experience with the world.

The best example from the text to illustrate Zhuangzi's conception of this optimally "frictionless" mode of experience is one found in chapter 3 of the text, the story of Cook Ding:

"Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee-zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music. …

"Cook Ting laid down his knife and [said], 'What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond all skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now-now I go at it by spirit and don't look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

"A good cook changes his knife once a year-because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month-because he hacks. I've had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I've cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there's plenty of room-more than enough for the blade to play about it. That's why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone." (Basic Writings, p.46-47)

The knife keeps its edge for an extraordinarily long time because it never confronts the obstacle of bone. It is not an accident that Lord Wen-hui finds in this, not just a lesson on butchering, but a lesson on life. This concern with preserving one's well-being through conservation of one's natural resources can also be found in the Yangist tradition (and is still one of the basic axioms of Chinese medicine), and suggests a significant Yangist influence on the text. In turn, this is also a factor which contributes to the influence exerted by the Zhuangzi on the subsequent development of alchemical longevity movements within the Daoist tradition.

Philosophy of Language

Regarding the use of language, we find the following passage in chapter 2 of the text (Watson, Basic Writings, p.34): "Words are not just wind. Words have something to say. But if what they have to say is not fixed, then do they really say something? Or do they say nothing? People suppose that words are different from the peeps of baby birds, but is there any difference, or isn't there?"

According to one reading of this passage, words carry significance, though they don't mean anything in and of themselves, and their meaning is not constant. The meaning of any word is dependent on and in turn contributes to the general context of the sentence, paragraph, discourse, etc. In other words, words don't mean anything pancontextually, but words do mean what we mean when we use words in any given situation. As previously indicated, Zhuangzi compares language to a fish net, which is useful only until a fish is caught, and then becomes obsolete and must be forgotten until a new fish, or in this case a new meaning, is sought. Burton Watson's translation of the final sentence of this passage is perfectly apt: "Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?" (Basic Writings p.140).

More specifically, Zhuangzi distinguishes between three kinds of language: Watson translates them as "imputed words," "repeated words," and "goblet words." The first are words attributed to some great historical or legendary figure, which increases their impact. The second are words which gain credibility simply by being familiar, since we often mistake the merely familiar for the obviously self-evident. The third are words whose meaning changes, which Zhuangzi describes as "words that are no-words" (Complete Writings, p. 303-304.) This kind of language constantly refreshes itself, and therefore more accurately conveys meaning. It fills and empties, and thus more closely mirrors the distinctions necessary for understanding.

Death As One More Natural Transformation

Zhuangzi conceives of the world as constantly changing. The adaptive qualities of the perfectly well-adjusted person enables him or her to remain balanced in the midst of this maelstrom of change and transformation. In Chapter 18, a story is told regarding the death of Zhuangzi's wife: "Chuang Tzu's wife died. When Hui Tzu went to convey his condolences, he found Chuang Tzu sitting with his legs sprawled out, pounding on a tub and singing. 'You lived with her, she brought up your children and grew old,' said Hui Tzu. 'It should be enough simply not to weep at her death. But pounding on a tub and singing-this is going too far, isn't it?'

"Chuang Tzu said, 'You're wrong. When she first died, do you think I didn't grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there's been another change and she's dead. It's just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter.

"'Now she's going to lie down peacefully in a vast room. If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don't understand anything about fate. So I stopped.'" (Basic Writings, p.113)

Many conclusions can be reached on the basis of this story, but it seems that death is regarded as a natural part of the ebb and flow of transformations which constitute the movement of Dao. To grieve over death, or to fear one's own death, for that matter, is to arbitrarily evaluate what is inevitable. Of course, this reading is somewhat ironic given the fact that much of the subsequent Daoist tradition comes to seek longevity and immortality, and bases some of their basic models on the Zhuangzi.

In some sense, we are reminded of Plato, who argues that people inappropriately fear death without knowing what it is. Similarly in chapter 2 of the Zhuangzi, Zhang Wuzi says: "How do I know that loving life is not a delusion? How do I know that in hating death I am not like a man who, having left home in his youth, has forgotten the way back?

"'Lady Li was the daughter of the border guard of Ai. When she was first taken captive and brought to the state of Chin, she wept until her tears drenched the collar of her robe. But later, when she went to live in the palace of the ruler, shared his couch with him, and ate the delicious meats of his table, she wondered why she had ever wept. How do I know that the dead do not wonder why they ever longed for life?'" (Basic Writings, p.42-3).

Zhuangzi's attitude is very different than Plato's, of course. Zhuangzi is suggesting that it is useless, arbitrary, and dysfunctional to set ourselves against what is natural. We can, he seems to say, choose to adopt different perspectives on experience. Why not choose ones which enable us to see death not as something to be feared and lamented, but as just one more phase in a much larger transformational movement. What is now Zhuangzi's wife was something else before she was Zhuangzi's wife, and what was Zhuangzi's wife will be something else after her death as well.

This is not necessarily to suggest an afterlife, or any form of personal immortality. But death in general can be said to lead to new life just as life in general ends in death. An example of this is the fact that dead matter fertilizes the ground and provides the raw material for other living beings to grow and reproduce. Life goes on, though we may not, and it is possible, the text seems to suggest, to adopt the perspective of life itself which transforms, for example, rather than to adopt the more narrow and limited perspective of a single moment in the transformation of life.

Conclusion - The Fully Realized Person

One of the most famous stories to be found in the Zhuangzi is the one found at the end of chapter 2: "Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he didn't know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things." (Basic Writings, p.45).

It is signficant that the important image in this story is the butterfly. This image sums up much of Zhuangzi's thought. The butterfly is a symbol of transformation; it follows the breeze yet arrives at the flower; Its actions are spontaneous and free. Thus it doesn't wear itself out fighting the forces of nature.

Zhuangzi uses several different phrases to refer to a person who embodies the Dao in this kind of natural and effortless fashion. These terms include "genuine person" (zhenren), "etherial" or "spiritual" person (shenren), and "fully realized person" (zhirren). Perhaps such a person resembles a butterfly in certain ways. He or she has become balanced and centered and is thus able to experience the pitch and roll of oppositions (taiji, t'ai chi) without being thrown off-balance by them. The sage can thus fit in the world, at the center, in the socket of the hinge, at the fulcrum of all dichotomies. He or she blends in with the surroundings, and becomes effectively frictionless, transparent and unobtrusive.

- Alan Fox                                  

Further Reading

Translations - There are several complete or partial translations of the Zhuangzi currently available. Of them, the most useful are:

Other suggestions - Other important books to consider include the following:

Published in Great Thinkers of the Eastern World,
ed. by Ian P. McGreal,
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.,
1995, pp. 21-26.